Shark Vegas' 'Pretenders Of Love' only originally surfaced on a US Factory compilation 'Young, Popular & Sexy'. How did the album and tracks for that album come about? Were label connections like Arthur Baker and Mark Kamins involved?
Michael Schamberg who ran Factory U.S, asked me if Shark Vegas would like to contribute a track to the first Factory U.S. compilation. The main aspect of the album was that it didn’t feature any tracks by New Order – it was mainly a crop of new and lesser-known Factory bands. Tony (Wilson) thought that the exposure could lead to American tours and potential record sales and was interested in promoting bands such as the Stockholm Monsters and a new band called the Happy Mondays, a group of spotty teenagers from Manchester. Michael had seen Shark Vegas perform at Danceteria in 1985 and our Factory single ‘You Hurt Me’ had done well in U.S. clubs, so I guess he thought we would also be a good choice. We went into the studio and recorded two tracks - one was ‘Pretenders Of Love’ and the other was a more uptempo track called ‘Love Habit’. I think Arthur Baker and Thurston Moore were involved in helping with the production of some of the tracks and in selecting the tracklist.
As Shark Vegas, the band are perhaps best known for the 'You Hurt Me' Factory single and the tour with New Order in 1984. What do you remember about your time recording and releasing that track? Were there ever plans for an album?
The demo for ‘You Hurt Me’ was originally recorded in Berlin at Harris Johnston studio and we took the rough 16-track demo tapes on tour with us to mix down at Conny Plank’s world-famous studio in Cologne with Bernard Sumner during the few off days on our tour with New Order. The Cologne recording session was a total fiasco, though. Dave, the studio engineer, thought we were taking the piss when we told him the name of the song, as he had suffered a slipped disc a few days before. During the entire session, he had to lie squirming on a camp bed which had been placed in front of the mixing desk. In-between swearing and screams of agony, he shouted his engineering instructions to Bernard. Understandably, under such circumstances, the results were less than satisfactory, so we tried again after the tour and took the opportunity to make a remix for the B-side of the single.
Al and I went over to England and remixed the track with Bernard and ACR's Donald Johnson in Manchester (the remix was called ‘You Hurt Me… but now your flesh lies rotting in hell’). That was another mammoth all day and night session too. We produced it together - Bernard played some additional guitar
and Donald added some female-sounding backing vocals. I asked my friend Mark Farrow if he would design the artwork for both the English and German versions of this single and they remain today as two examples of his earliest record sleeve designs.
Although ‘You Hurt Me’ went virtually unnoticed in the UK, it apparently became very popular in indie clubs and gay discos throughout the USA and I have been told that Shark Vegas had some kind of mysterious cult following over there. Meanwhile, ‘You Hurt Me’ has become very rare and one of the most sought after Factory releases. We did plan an album and our live set featured some of the songs we had written for it, but we sadly never had the funds to go into the studio and record it.
Could you tell us about your time with Shark Vegas-precursor Die Unbekannten when you originally formed the band in Berlin in the early '80s? How did you first get together with Alistair Gray? And how was the scene in East Berlin at that time?
Die Unbekannten (The Unknown) was formed in June 1981 by myself and my fellow compatriot Alistair Gray, for the now legendary "Konzert zur Einheit der Nation" (Concert for the Unity of the Nation – ie. Germany) which was held in the SO36 club in Berlin-Kreuzberg on 17th June, 1981. I had been asked if I would contribute and I quite literally bumped into Al at a gig (he stepped on my foot!). We got chatting, I asked him if he could sing and he immediately crooned ‘Strangers In The Night’. I told him that we had a gig the following week, invited him over to my flat and said I would show him how to play bass. We wrote most of our three song set in my flat, a couple of days before the gig, and the song lyrics for ‘Radio War’ were written in the pub opposite the club while we were waiting for our soundcheck. That first gig was horrendous. German TV had been recording the first hour and the stage was steaming hot from all their extra lights. I tuned my guitar backstage, which was much cooler. The minute I hit the stage, my guitar immediately went out of tune and we panicked. I then accidentally switched to the wrong drum pattern on our MFB drum machine and we had no idea where the hell we were. People thought we were very avant-garde playing against the rhythm. We muddled through our three songs and it was a huge relief to finally get off that stage. Unbelievably, our feeble attempt at playing ‘Radio War’ from that dismal first performance appeared on the commemorative ‘Licht und Schatten’ live compilation.
We actually had no band name when we appeared at the SO36, so we were dubbed by a local journalist as "two unknown Englishmen" in a local magazine review, so the name "Die Unbekannten" stuck. We obviously made some kind of positive impression because our piss poor performance was applauded by Elisabeth Recker, who asked us if we would make a single for her label. We recorded our first 12" vinyl, simply titled "Die Unbekannten" shortly afterwards
for her Monogam label. This controversial three track EP also featured our Swiss friend Thomas Wydler on drums, who then became our live drummer. The EP
was a collection of gloomy and politically themed tracks, such as the Cold War classics ‘Radio War’, ‘Casualties’ and ‘Poseidon’ (a song about the sinking of a Poseidon nuclear submarine). We even made a video.
The first single had political correctness problems. The cover art not only featured a very Third Reich-ian looking typeface, but also had a photo of three East German border patrol guards (VOPOS), which had been obtained especially for the artwork. However, it transpired that the French photographer had only given his permission for us to use it for the cover art and not for other marketing purposes and, when he saw the city adorned with "Die Unbekannten" posters, he went bonkers, filed a suit against the label and withdrew his permission for his picture. After selling a few thousand copies, the single was eventually culled from the shelves.
In spring 1982, we were given an early prototype of a Roland TR606 drum computer by a friend of ours who was a member of the Human League. After a few days of trials (writing two songs), we immediately went into Harris Johns recording studio and recorded two miserable songs, ‘Don't Tell Me Stories’ (which featured Renegade Soundwave's Danny Briotett on cooking pot-percussion), and the very depressive ‘Perfect Love’ for our next Monogram EP ‘Dangerous Moonlight’. This melancholic synth-pop single was a huge success for us.
The alternative East Berlin music scene was very small and very desperate. It wasn’t easy being a new waver or a punk in the Draconian, Stalinist East German Democratic Republic. After all, to the East German authorities, punk was the result of capitalism and unemployment, both of which didn’t officially exist there. If you had spikey hair or wore punkish attire, you were very likely to get a good dose of grief from the authorities at every level. This didn’t mean that a scene didn’t exist, it just didn’t exist like it did in the West, where people took fashion and musical trends for granted. In the East, they were statements of
defiance and were viewed as being decadent and anti-state. It was risky and could carry severe penalties, so it was forced to be underground and subversive. Being a frequent traveller into East Berlin, I had eventually made a few friends over there. They listened to the John Peel radio shows religiously and devoured every minute. As they were interested in the kind of music I also liked, I did my best to smuggle them music over the wall whenever I could. I also had friends in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, where Die Unbekannten played a couple of illegal gigs.
What are your memories of the Berlin episode of ‘The Tube’ that you helped put together in 1983?
The Tube was one of the UK's most popular and influential TV pop shows and was hosted by Muriel Grey, Paula Yates and Jools Holland, debuting many now famous bands. The producers planned to come to Berlin to make a "special" and, being a rare englishman in Berlin and a former Factory Records artist as well as an active participant in the Berlin alternative music scene, I was asked to be their "Mr Fix-It". This meant I would help to select the bands for the show, scout the locations and set up the necessary permits. I even approached my friends at the US and British military to get the appropriate passes for us to film at
such impressive locations as on the notorious Glienicke Bruecke (where, occasionally, spies would be exchanged) and at dodgy places around the wall (the military would also provide us with "protection" too).
The special was originally going to be co-hosted by mild-mannered NME writer Chris Bohn and, before we got started, Chris and I discussed what kind of portrayal of Berlin's current music scene we would like to bring to the British TV viewers. We were very pleased to be able to convince The Tube that no traditionally commercial German pop artists should be featured, except those we
wanted to take the piss out of!
Finding the talent, equipment and filming permits in West Berlin wasn't really such a hassle for me to organise, but the East was another matter entirely. The day before the TV crew came over, I was told that Chris Bohn sadly couldn't appear in the programme after all, as he had to go to China. Chris had suggested that I could do the co-hosting instead. Not wanting to disappoint everyone and flake out on this important job (especially after all the hard work I had put in), I decided I would do it and, not knowing what this all really meant, I jumped in and stood like wood, babbling in front of the camera, completely stoned after being out all night with the crew. Filming in East Berlin was very different indeed, it was all official and we had a nice but careful Stasi minder who watched over our every move.
I had spent two months previously trying to get the East German authorities to approve permission to film a very new, young band called Jessica that no one had ever heard of. The band themselves didn’t even have official permission to perform, let alone appear on TV. Everyone who intended to perform before the public had to go through a rigorous state-approved aptitude test presided over by a bunch of old blokes in brown suits who vetted your musical proficiency. I had literally met Jessica on the street and, knowing that there was no way that they would let us show an East German punk band on British telly, I thought that some clean cut new wavey looking lads would do the trick perfectly in representing the German Democratic Republic. It eventually came off and it was all very emotional, being the first time such a thing had ever happened to any East German band. Picked from a practice room and thrust onto capitalist telly was the stuff of fairy tales. It was unforgettable.
Check ‘Five Point One’, a collection of Mark Reeder remixes, at: